Santa Clara University’s de Saisset Museum reconsiders popular perceptions of Native Californians in new photography exhibit.

Cousin Fred, Truckee, 1982. (Image courtesy of Dugan Aguilar and Exhibit Envoy)

The U.S. government currently acknowledges 109 different Native American tribes within the state of California, with yet another 78 petitioning for recognition. The numbers speak to a sizable and highly diverse native Californian population that goes all-too-unrecognized throughout the state. And when it does come to popular representations of these indigenous people, much of the exposure that exists often comes from outside the community and in the form of romanticized narratives.

Enter Dugan Aguilar.

Hunge Ka Pu, Chaw’se, 1995. (Image courtesy of Dugan Aguilar and Exhibit Envoy)

A California native with a family background of Northern Paiute, Maidu and Irish, Aguilar is a Vietnam veteran who was inspired by the work of Ansel Adams to pursue photography as a means of documenting an insider view of native life in California. His four-plus decades of work constitute an expansive chronicle of indigenous people in the western states that defies the narrow scope of mainstream visual representations.

This week, Santa Clara University’s de Saisset Museum launches a new photography exhibit celebrating Aguilar’s uniquely insider viewpoint. The series presents a compelling and highly multi-faceted selection of his work capturing the indigenous experience in California, including portraits of Native American military veterans, traditional crafts, California landscapes, tribal ceremonies and uniquely-composed architecture.

“He covers a lot of ground in this exhibition,” explains Lauren Baines, Assistant Director of the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University. “So you have these moments where you are certainly seeing ceremony and individuals in regalia, but it’s a lived experience. … You see individuals active in their communities. It’s a living culture.”

Jene McCovey, 2001; Franklin Mullens, Veterans Gathering, Susanville, 2000. (Image courtesy of Dugan Aguilar and Exhibit Envoy)

The Aguilar exhibit fits well with the programming at de Saisset, which—in addition to possessing some of his imagery in its collection—has made a concerted effort over the past few years to highlight contemporary native artists to promote “their representation of their own culture.” Baines sees Aguilar’s work as exemplary in this role, offering a strong counterpoint to the more historical material in their permanent California history exhibition, which spans many eras from pre-European contact to the early days of Santa Clara College (circa 1851), with particular emphasis on the Peninsula’s own native tribe—the Ohlone. In this regard, the Aguilar exhibit aims to intertwine these many Native California storylines.

“Even though Dugan himself is not Ohlone,” says Baines, “his work is certainly speaking to the fact that there are many different tribes throughout California still in existence. And for us, this is an opportunity to show that through some really beautiful photographs.”

Clockwise from top: First Kill (Kevin O’Day), 1982; Mimi Mullen (Maidu), grand marshal, Greenville Gold Digger Days Parade, 1997; Headdress, Maidu dancer, 2004; Tuolumne Roundhouse, 1993. (Image courtesy of Dugan Aguilar and Exhibit Envoy)

The Dugan Aguilar photography exhibit—titled, She Sang Me a Good Luck Song: The California Indian Photographs—will run in the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University from September 28th to November 30th.

The opening night reception for the exhibit is this Thursday, September 27th: 6–7 p.m. Members’ Preview
7–8:30 p.m. Free Public Opening

A book of Aguilar’s work containing photos from the exhibit can be found here.

View the De Saisset Museum’s event calendar for events related to the exhibition, as well as other fall programming.

She Sang Me A Good Luck Song: The California Indian Photographs of Dugan Aguilar is a partnership with Exhibit Envoy, Heyday Books, and the Native Fund, curated by Theresa Harlan and artist Dugan Aguilar.

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More photography articles from The Six Fifty:

National Geographic’s Cristina Mittermeier on how imagery can spark activism

The Rebirth of Cool: jazz legends featured in new Silicon Valley photo exhibit

These photos envision the forgotten history of the American West

Wading into the reality of climate change — one portrait at a time

Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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